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Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman
Putnam, 2018. 293 pp. $26

Dutiful, reliable, bewildered by life, unsure what happiness is or whether he’s ever experienced it, that’s Tom Hope — until he meets Hannah Babel. Hometown, Australia, has never seen anything like her, and even in 1968, the changes sweeping the West seem to have skipped this rural, agrarian corner of Down Under. Hannah, an effervescent Hungarian Holocaust survivor (a phrase probably seldom used, but it fits) plans to open a bookshop, of all things, and she hires Tom, a sheep rancher and orchardist, to do welding and carpentry to prepare for the opening. She’s utterly mercurial, older than he by fifteen years, speaks inflected English he can’t always fathom, and when she lets her canary, David, fly freely, the bird settles on Tom’s shoulder, further discomfiting him.

Hannah settles on him too, in a passionate rush that made me think, for a moment, that The Bookshop of the Brokenhearted derives from a male fantasy. But no; though their instant mutual attraction burns intensely, plenty of obstacles stand between them, least of which is that Tom has never read a book. A few years before, Tom married Trudy, a psychologically unstable woman who has left him, twice, and scarred him so badly that happiness is “a fugitive,” to “be roused to confidence, encouraged,” but, if grasped too strongly, might “slip back into the shadows, forever.” (Trudy’s legacy continues in other ways, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) Hannah has had two husbands, both dead, but she suffered her worst loss at Auschwitz, which stays with her, always. Metaphorically, that loss connects her to Trudy, something that neither Tom nor Hannah expected.

Poddy lambs, or orphans, drinking milk at a sheep station (ranch) in Australia (courtesy Figaro at English Wikipedia)

In lesser hands, a premise like this could easily turn sticky with treacle, melodrama, clichéd predictability, or a combination of these. Books, bookshops, and libraries are a hot thing in fiction these days, soon to be a trope, perhaps. Nevertheless, nothing happens here without second thoughts, reversals, mixed feelings, and a sense of dread, collectively the best tonic for treacle. Hillman never loses sight of his characters’ age, maturity, or makeup, and his narrative takes no adolescent flights of fancy, relying on simple prose, grounded in the everyday, again staying in character. Consider this passage early on, just after Trudy leaves, and Tom, in his workshop, wonders whether she’ll write:

With the soldering, it was the work of a good two hours. An old, demented ram he treated as a friend butted him repeatedly as he sanded and primed — not hard, just affectionately. And Beau [his dog] in turn chewed on the old ram’s leg. Tom asked himself aloud: ‘What do you expect her [Trudy] to say to you, you nong? “Hello, it’s a nice day?” For God’s sake.’ He was a practical person who never thought of fate and things that were meant to be. He could take apart an engine, stand surrounded by its thousand parts, find what was causing the problem, put the engine back together. He might daydream, but he knew that the dreams were foolish.

How can you resist a scene like that, which shows another side to a man not given to reflection?

Besides the treacle, it would be easy for a writer to adopt Hannah as a Jew of convenience, visible to a knowledgeable reader as unfamiliar with her own faith, which she’s also conveniently let slide. That’s a favorite device, as I’ve noted before in other posts. But Hillman knows his ground, rendering Hannah’s flashbacks with authority and depicting her Jewishness as well as the casual anti-Semitism of Tom’s neighbors. But their reaction is an aside; Tom has never heard of Auschwitz and has the barest notions of the Holocaust, about which Hannah refuses to tell him. So it’s the hidden past that lies between them, not what the neighbors say, about which Tom wouldn’t care anyway.

Names matter in this novel, at times too obviously. Tom Hope? Check. Does Babel refer to the tower of, given Hannah’s multilingual, sometimes chaotic persona; or Isaac, the great Russian writer murdered by Stalin? No question where Pastor Bligh comes from, a vicious, self-righteous disciplinarian who lives up to his namesake, except that he’s incompetent at his job. I have no sympathy for fundamentalist Christian cultist lunatic sadists, and I suppose that’s fair. Yet I want this man to have a three-dimensional rendering, and he doesn’t get one.

Even so, that’s the major glitch in The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, a warm, satisfying, decidedly unsticky novel, which I highly recommend.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.